I have referred to it before (May 2009) but the title of Cornelius Platinga’s book of a few years ago (Eerdmans; 1995) continues to be an accurate way to describe features of life in our world and community. It’s my recurring thought during the events of the first weeks of 2010. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Policemen shouldn’t be blown up by bombs. Wives shouldn’t cheat on their husbands. Young men (and older men) shouldn’t sleep with other men’s wives. Politicians shouldn’t mishandle their expenses or other people’s money to satisfy their greed or for personal advantage. Clergymen and church elders shouldn’t abuse children to satisfy their own perverse lusts. Church authorities shouldn’t cover up child abuse. And none of us should pervert, adulterate or destroy good things by our words or deeds. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Plantinga tries to retrieve the awareness of sin that seems to have evaporated in many aspects of our common life by renewing our memory for the integrity of creation and for the beauty of grace. The prophets of the Old Testament dreamt of a new age when human crookedness would be straightened out and when rough place would be made plain. The foolish would become wise and the wise would be humble. The deserts would produce flowers. All weeping would cease. Lambs would lie down with lions. People could go to sleep without weapons on their laps. Humankind and all of nature would delight in God. They called it shalom. It is more than just peace. It is harmony, wholeness and delight. Shalom is the way things ought to be.
First and foremost sin is against God. It displeases God and deserves blame. One of the reasons why it displeases God is that it violates shalom. It vandalises the peace and the harmony of the way things are supposed to be. Sin is shalom-breaking. It assaults and destroys the proper relationships between human beings and between people and their Creator and Saviour. Our purpose and calling as human beings is to build shalom and thus to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. At its core, sin is a denial of our main and primary purpose as human beings.
When we sin, we destroy good things. We create toxic atmospheres of moral evil which those around us are forced to breathe in. We bequeath the effects of our sin to our children. We involve ourselves in what theologians call corruption. And what has disturbed us most recently is that shalom-breaking is alive and well among those who profess to know God best.
“Christians have often used the sternness of the law of God to hamstring and scorn the lives of others, and the loveliness of the grace of God to exculpate and adorn their own. Picking and choosing from the testaments of Scripture, Christians have walled off the liberties of others while making plenty of allowances for themselves. Preachers have used sermons to humiliate enemies and to justify friends, to construct ecclesiastical fiefdoms, to vent personal prejudices, and to gratify childish desires to be the centre of attention. Christians have used benevolent donations to elicit the gratitude of others, and then used their gratitude to control them. Even those dark Christians who despair of their sins and shortcomings may become “fiercely aware” of this despair and curious as to its merit. As Helmut Thielecke somewhere observes, every mature Christian knows that even when we are at worship the wolves may be howling in our souls.”
Since religion emerges from the depths of our existence, and because it has such power to express our purposes and longings, the evil that clings to our religion can corrupt us to the core. Geoffrey Bromiley says that religious sin shows us sin “in its full range and possibility”. That is why Jesus was so opposed to the Pharisees.
“The inward corruption to which Jesus refers in the scathing denunciation in Matthew 23 is not the corruption of deliberate and calculated insincerity. It is the corruption of a sincere and sincerely practiced religion, which is ultimately a supreme manifestation of religious pride … The frightening picture opened up here is that when one recognises obvious sin one has hardly begun to reckon seriously with this adversary. The open and blatant sinner, the oppressor or the harlot, is indeed a sinner. But it is not here that the genuine depth of sin is revealed, not even if the oppressor be ever so grasping or the harlot ever so shameless. It is in religious persons that the depths are to be seen.”
We desperately want to keep up appearances, even within ourselves. We try to keep the mask in place within our own hearts by a complex process of self-deception. We write our own cover stories. We refuse to inquire into our motives. We file our sins under alternative headings. And we sing words that we don’t really intend to implement: “For Thee all the follies of sin I resign”.
While sin hurts other people and grieves God, it also corrodes us. Sin is a form of self-abuse. Promiscuous people disqualify themselves from the deepest forms of intimacy, the ones bonded by trust. Envy (the displeasure at another’s good and the urge to deprive her of it) traps and torments the envier. Proud people isolate themselves and deprive themselves of the possibility of real friendship. Pride renders fools unteachable since they think they know it all. Fools, as the saying goes, are often in error but never in doubt, and some of them try to give you a piece of their mind which, as someone said, they can hardly afford to lose. Foolish pride not only causes misery, but prevents escape from it.
Because sin is futile and destructive, it is therefore foolish, and in many senses, ludicrous. In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says the Devil is (in the long run) an ass. He leads us on the wrong path. We miss the target or aim for the wrong target. We saw off the branch that supports us.
The good news, says Platinga, is that in spite of all our foolish and self-destructive sin, God doesn’t give up on us.
“To speak of sin by itself, to speak of it apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God, and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way. Moreover, to speak of sin by itself is to misunderstand its nature: sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler. Sinful life is partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate on our rebellion, defection and folly – to say to the world “I have some bad news and I have some bad news” – is to forget that the centre of the Christian religion is not our sin but our Saviour. To speak of sin without grace is to minimise the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom.
But to speak of grace without sin is surely no better. To do this is to trivialise the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling by good people down the ages to forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners, including themselves, and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it. What had we thought the ripping and writhing on Golgotha were all about? To speak of grace without looking at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgement of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to the mere embellishment of the music of creation, to shrink it down to a mere grace note. In short, for the Christian church (even its recently popular seeker services) to ignore, euphemise, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.”